Eastern Christian monasticism

Eastern Christian Monasticism is the life followed by monks and nuns of Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholicism. Some authors will use the term "Basilian" to describe Eastern monks; however, this is incorrect, since the Eastern Church does not have religious orders, as in the West, nor does Eastern monasticism have monastic Rules, as in the West.


Monasticism began in the East, and it is in the East that it continues to this day to have the strongest influence on the daily life of the local Christian communities.

The early Church

The mystical and other-worldly nature of the Christian message very early laid the groundwork for the ascetical life. The example of the Old Testament Prophets, of John the Baptist and of Jesus himself, going into the wilderness to pray and fast set the example that was readily followed by the devout. In the early Christian literature evidence is found of individuals who embraced lives of celibacy and mortification for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, these individuals were not yet monks, as they had not renounced the world, but lived either in towns or near the outskirts of civilization. We also read of communities of virgins living a common life committed to celibacy and virtue. The accounts of some of these virgins are preserved in the martyrologies of the day.

The Founders

The beginning of monasticism per-se comes right at the end of the Great Persecution of Diocletian, and the founder is Saint Anthony the Great (251 - 356). As a young man he heard the words of the Gospel read in church: "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me" (] and today is a part of the Oriental Orthodox communion (not to be confused with the Eastern Orthodox communion). The first Catholicos of the Armenian church was Saint Gregory the Illuminator. [cite web | url= http://www.hyeetch.nareg.com.au/religion/h_see_p1.html | title= The Holy City and the Mother Church of St. Etchmiadzin | accessdate=2007-02-06] St. Gregory soon withdrew to the desert to live as a hermit, and his youngest son, Aristakes, was ordained a Bishop and appointed head of the Armenian Church.

In the 5th century, the Sassanid Shah Yazdegerd II tried to impose the Zoroastrian religion on his Christian Armenian subjects. [cite web | url= http://www.fsmitha.com/h1/ch22c.htm | title= The Sassanids, to 500 CE | accessdate=2007-02-06] As a result, a rebellion broke out with Vartan Mamikonian as the leader of the rebels. Eventually, the Treaty of Nvarsak (484), guaranteed religious freedom to the Armenians. [cite web | url= http://www.umd.umich.edu/dept/armenian/papazian/armenia.html | title= ARMENIANS (September 8, 1987) | accessdate=2007-02-06]

In 591, the great Byzantine warrior and Emperor Maurice defeated the Persians and recovered much of the remaining territory of Armenia into the empire. The conquest was completed by the Emperor Heraclius in 629.

In 645, the Muslim Arab armies of the Caliphate attacked the country, which fell before them. Armenia, which had at times been under the contol of its own rulers and at other times been under Persian and Byzantine control, now passed into the hands of the Caliphs.

After the fall of the kingdom in 1045, and the subsequent Seljuk conquest of Armenia in 1064, the Armenians established a kingdom in Cilicia, where they established cordial relations with the Europeans and prolonged their existence as an independent entity until 1375. Greater Armenia was later divided between the Ottoman Empire and Imperial Russia. Armenians then suffered in the genocide that was inflicted on them by the Ottomans. As a result, 1.5 million Armenians were killed, and the rest of the Western Armenians were dispersed throughout the world via Syria and Lebanon. Armenia, from then on corresponding to much of Eastern Armenia, once again gained independence in 1918, with the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Armenia, and then in 1991, with the Republic of Armenia. Throughout the waxing and waning of the Armenian's political vicissitudes, monasticism remained a central aspect of their spiritual life.

The Armenian church has both married (secular) and monastic (celibate) clergy. Armenian monks follow much the same monastic tradition as the Coptics and Byzantines, but are much stricter in the matter of fasting. The novitiate lasts eight years. Interestingly, the abbot is often not a monk at all, but a married secular priest who leaves his office to his son by hereditary right.

A Hieromonk, or celibate priest, declares a vow of celibacy the evening of the same day he is ordained and is given a "veghar", a special head-cover, which symbolizes his renunciation of worldly things. A celibate priest is given the title of Monk ( _hy. Abegha). Upon successful completion and defense of a written thesis, on a topic of his choosing, the Monk receives the rank of Archimandrite ("Vardapet"). This indicates that he is a “Doctor” of the Church and receives the right to carry the staff of an Archimandrite. A higher rank of Senior Archimandrite ("Dzayraguyn Vardapet") can be granted after completing and defending a doctoral thesis. The rank can only be granted by Bishops who themselves have attained the rank of Senior Archimandrite. The bishops are elected from among those celibate priests who have achieved the rank of archimandrite.

Most Armenian bishops live in monasteries. Etchmiadzin, the residence of the Catholikos of all Armenians, is the spiritual center of the Armenian Church. There is also a Catholicos of Cilicia, who resides in Antilyas in Lebanon, and leads the churches belonging to the Holy See of Cilicia. Since 1461 there has been an Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople. The Armenians possess the huge monastery of St. James, the centre of the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem, where their Patriarch of Jerusalem lives, and the convent of Deir asseituni on Mount Zion with numerous nuns.

At present, there are three monastic brotherhoods in the Armenian Church: the Brotherhood of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, the Brotherhood of St. James at the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and the Brotherhood of the Holy See of Cilicia. Each Armenian celibate priest becomes a member of the brotherhood in which he has studied and ordained in or under the jurisdiction of which he has served. The brotherhood makes decisions concerning the inner affairs of the monastery. Each brotherhood elects two delegates who take part in the National Ecclesiastical Assembly.

The Mechitarists (Armenian: Մխիթարեան), also spelled Mekhitarists, are a congregation, founded in 1712 by Mechitar, of Armenian Benedictine monks in communion with the Catholic Church. They are best known for their series of scholarly publications of ancient Armenian versions of otherwise lost ancient Greek texts.

Byzantine monasticism

t. Basil the Great

Saint Basil the Great (c. 330 - 379) is one of the most important influences on both Byzantine and Western monasticism. Before forming his own monastic community, he visited Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine and Syria, observing the monastic life and learning both from the positive and negative examples he encountered. He later composed his "Asketikon" for the members of the monastery he founded about the year 356 on the banks of the Iris river in Cappadocia. St Basil's work entailed two sets of monastic regulations: the "Lesser Asketikon" and the "Greater Asketikon". Correspondence exists between him and St. Gregory Nazianzen which gives further insight into the type of monastic life he established.

t. Theodore the Studite

The monks, as a rule, enjoyed the favor of the emperors and patriarchs, but during the iconoclastic persecution they suffered terribly for the orthodoxy of their faith; the stand they took in this aroused the anger of the imperial powers and many were martyred for the faith, monasticism itself (not merely individual monks) became the target of the heretical emperors. Many of them were condemned to exile, and some took advantage of this condemnation to reorganize their religious life in Italy. Ironically, St. John of Damascus, living in a Moslem nation was independent of the iconoclast emperors and could defend the faith from afar.

The second half of the 8th century seems to have been a time of very general decadence; but about the year 800 St. Theodore the Studite (c. 758 - c. 826)—destined to be the one of the most creative names in Eastern monasticism—became abbot of the monastery of St. John the Baptist, called the "Studium" (founded at Constantinople in the fifth century). He set himself to reform his monastery and restore St. Basil's spirit in its primitive vigour. But to effect this, and to give permanence to the reformation, he saw that there was need of a more practical code of laws to regulate the details of the daily life, as a supplement to St Basil's teachings. He therefore drew up constitutions, afterwards codified, which became the norm of the life at the Studium monastery, and gradually spread thence to the monasteries of the rest of the Eastern Roman Empire. At the same time the monastery was an active center of intellectual and artistic life and a model which exercised considerable influence on monastic observances in the East. Thus to this day the "Asketikon" of Basil and the Constitutions of Theodore, along with the canons of the Councils, constitute the chief part of Greek and Slavic monastic tradition.

Later Byzantine monasticism

Monastic life on Mount Athos was founded towards the close of the 10th century through the aid of the Emperor Basil the Macedonian and became the largest and most celebrated of all the monastic centers of the Eastern Roman Empire. The peninsula is actually an independent monastic republic, governed by twenty "Sovereign Monasteries", with its own elected president ("protos") and governing council. Mount Athos is the site of innumerable priceless cultural and spiritual treasures, and up to this day it is considered the capital of Orthodox monasticism.

The Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai, was inhabited by hermits from the early days of monasticism. But the monastery as it is now was built by order of Emperor Justinian I between 527 and 565, enclosing the Chapel of the Burning Bush which had been built by St. Helena, the mother of St. Constantine the Great, at the site where Moses is supposed to have seen the burning bush. The site has been inhabited by monks ever since and is sacred to three major world religions - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Many sacred icons there escaped the ravages of iconoclasm because of the remoteness of the location. Probably the most well-known item to come from the monastery is the "Codex Sinaiticus", a 4th century manuscript of the Septuagint which is of enormous value for textual research of the scriptures.

Saint Gregory Palamas (1296 - 1359) defended Hesychasm

Saint Paisius Velichkovsky (1722 - 1794), responsible for the renewal of monastic life in the 18th century, on Mount Athos, Romania and Imperial Russia.

Leontius of Byzantium (d. 543), author of a treatise against the Nestorians and Eutychians

St. Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, one of the most vigorous adversaries of the Monothelite heresy ["Patrologia Graecae" (P.G.), LXXXVII, 3147-4014]

St. Maximus the Confessor, Abbot of Chrysopolis (d. 662), the most brilliant representative of Byzantine monasticism in the seventh century; in his writings and letters St. Maximus steadily combated the partisans of the erroneous doctrines of Monothelitism. [ibid., XC and XCI.]
St. John Damascene together with St Theodore the Studite, defended of the veneration of icons. His works include theological, ascetic, hagiographical, liturgical, and historical writings. [P.G., XCIX.]

The Byzantine monasteries furnish a long line of historians who were also monks: John Malalas, whose "hronographia" [P.G., XCVII, 9-190.] served as a model for Eastern chroniclers; Georgius Syncellus, who wrote a "Selected Chronographia"; his friend and disciple Theophanes (d. 817), Abbot of the "Great Field" near Cyzicus, the author of another "Chronographia"; [P.G., CVIII.] the Patriarch Nicephorus, who wrote (815 - 829) an historical "Breviarium" (a Byzantine history), and an "Abridged Chronographia"; [P.G., C, 879-991.] George the Monk, whose "Chronicle" stops at 842 AD. [P.G. CX.]

There were, besides, a large number of monks, hagiographers, hymnologists, and poets who had a large share in the development of the Greek Liturgy. Among the authors of hymns may be mentioned: St. Maximus the Confessor; St. Theodore the Studite; St. Romanus the Melodist; St. Andrew of Crete; St. John Damascene; Cosmas of Jerusalem, and St. Joseph the Hymnographer.

Fine penmanship and the copying of manuscripts were held in honor among the Byzantines. Among the monasteries which excelled in the art of copying were the Studium, Mount Athos, the monastery of the Isle of Patmos and that of Rossano in Sicily; the tradition was continued later by the monastery of Grottaferrata near Rome. These monasteries, and others as well, were studios of religious art where the monks toiled to produce miniatures, manuscripts, paintings, and goldsmith work. The triumph of Orthodoxy over the iconoclastic heresy infused an extraordinary enthusiasm into this branch of their labors.


St. Cyril and St. Methodius, the Apostles of the Macedonians.

lavic Monasteries


Saint Sava of Serbia 1169 - 1236


St. Anthony of Kiev, St. Theodosius of Kiev

Eastern Monasticism in the West

St. Herman of Alaska

Bolshevik Revolution


See also


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